U.N. Envoy Accuses Brazil of Pervasive Prisoner Abuse
By Stephen Buckley
Washington Post Foreign Service
BRASILIA, Sept. 12 –– A senior U.N. human rights official looking into
conditions in Brazilian prisons charged today that authorities here routinely
and prisoners to illegal detention, subhuman conditions and torture, and are rarely punished for the abuses.
"Things are worse than I expected," said Nigel Rodley, the U.N. special
rapporteur on torture, after nearly three weeks of visits to police stations,
prisons and other
detention centers across Latin America's largest and most populous nation. "What I had heard was just the tip of the iceberg."
The issue of torture by law enforcement authorities is highly sensitive
in this nation of 167 million. It revives memories of Brazil's 21 years
of military dictatorship,
during which state-sanctioned torture was used against the government's enemies. Victims of that repression generally were tortured for ideological reasons, but in
today's Brazil, torture has become an entrenched method of controlling the country's 194,000 prisoners, Rodley said.
Suspects being interrogated are, for example, regularly forced to hang
upside down on metal bars--a punishment known as the "parrot's perch"--where
beaten on the soles of their feet and subjected to electric shock.
Some of the worst abuses Rodley encountered were in Sao Paulo's juvenile
prison system, which houses 4,000 minors. The system is known for detention
which juveniles are often beaten with sticks, bats and metal bars and forced to live in overcrowded conditions. One center, recently closed, was designed for 364
adolescents but held 1,648.
Rodley said he interviewed adolescents at one center who had been beaten
and tortured and that he discovered weapons guards had been using on the
After the interviews, he added, guards pummeled several of the adolescents as punishment for talking to him.
The U.N. official also expressed anger and dismay over the practice
of criminal suspects being held in police stations for weeks, sometimes
months, before they
appear in court. Even in cases in which suspects are not detained for long before they appear in court, they are often packed into crowded cells where they must
sleep on bare floors amid rotting food and feces. Of one such station, Rodley said: "I almost retched. It was grotesque."
Rodley, who said his full report should be released by early next year,
blamed the government for not punishing law enforcement officials who oversee
in abusing criminals and suspects. He noted, for example, that justice authorities had promised to dismiss officials and guards responsible for severely beating an
inmate in one juvenile facility he visited. But he said that he learned several days later that they had not been punished.
The government is not expected to respond officially until Rodley's
report is complete. But politicians and activists hailed Rodley's visit
as a new opportunity for Brazil
to intensify efforts to improve its human rights record. Marcos Rolim, president of a congressional commission on human rights, said Rodley's findings will be taken
seriously because "he's not a part of the political process here, which gives him a lot of credibility."
Congressman Nilmario Miranda, another human rights activist, expressed
hope that Rodley's visit will spur more aggressive prosecution of citizens
or authorities who
engage in torture.